It’s been three years since the last full series of Sherlock, but this New Year’s Day, the game is back on. Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman return as Holmes and Watson. Mark Gatiss, Amanda Abbington, and the other series regulars are expected to reappear the upcoming fourth series, with a new, tiny character being introduced to the cast.
The last we saw of the great detective was in the January 2016 special “The Abominable Bride,” in which Sherlock’s mind palace takes him and his associates back to the 19th Century as he attempts to wrap his head around the events of the third series. Moriarty’s apparent return to London rather stood in the way of Sherlock’s exile, after he murdered criminal mastermind Charles Augustus Magnussen, and whether there are to be repercussions for Sherlock’s actions, we will find out on January 1.
But for this list, we’re looking back rather than forward, as we undertake the thankless task of ranking every episode of the hit BBC drama from worst to best, including said special. Let’s begin Every Episode of Sherlock, Ranked.
10 “The Blind Banker” (1X02)
No doubt this will be a recurring theme as the list unfolds, but it was especially hard to rank our number 10 contender; it's difficult to decide which episode of Sherlock deserves to be ranked in last place.
“The Blind Banker” breathes new life into Holmes and Watson’s relationship following the series opener, as Sherlock saves John from the criminal group Black Lotus. Unfortunately, it is just one of the pair’s least memorable cases, and the episode struggles in its attempts to live up to the first.
Lestrade (Rupert Graves) and the supporting cast are absent, and while the episode does introduce John’s boss Sarah Sawyer (Zoe Telford) as a potential love interest for the good doctor, she is thrown in at the deep end far too quickly, and a promising relationship ultimately goes to waste. Elsewhere, the absence of a charismatic villain is noted (especially in hindsight), while the episode tends to drag in certain places. Additionally, the mystery of the Chinese smuggling leans into unfortunate racial stereotyping and Orientalism. Sherlock has been far smarter than this episode, as we'll see soon see.
9 “The Hounds of Baskerville” (2X02)
Drifting towards a darker tone in its second series, Sherlock's writers (in this case, Mark Gatiss) faced the daunting task of trying to modernize one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous gothic stories. If adapting “The Hounds of Baskerville” to the modern day setting was the name of the game, then Gatiss succeeds across the board, but the plot itself doesn’t quite live up to the hype.
Sherlock and John investigate Henry Knight’s (Russell Tovey) claim that his father was killed by a “gigantic hound,” which is nothing more than legend according to the Dartmoor locals. The episode offers some of the best cinematography in the show’s run, but the genuine jump scares feel like they belong on a different show entirely.
Sherlock and John spend most of the episode apart, as the writers try desperately to come up with new and exciting clues about the identity of the “hound”, and the case actually causes an uncharacteristic breakdown in the titular detective. For all of its mystery, “The Hounds of Baskerville” just doesn’t feel like Sherlock.
8 “The Empty Hearse” (3X01)
Almost 13 million people tuned in to the series 3 opener (a record for the show), which promised to explain Sherlock’s return following his apparent death in “The Reichenbach Fall.” The episode actually leaves us guessing, and the way it skirts around the issue is Sherlock all over. But it’s also just a little frustrating, and the rest of the episode is slightly less interesting as a result.
This unfortunately means that the introductions of both Mary Morstan (Amanda Abbington) and John’s moustache don’t quite get the credit they deserve. The case of the week, which sees Sherlock and John attempt to disarm a bomb set on the London Underground, is given little time to flourish, while Charles Augustus Magnussen’s (Lars Mikkelsen) kidnapping of John might have been a standout moment in another episode.
“The Empty Hearse” does its job in setting up a strong third series, but it was always going to fall a little flat for those who had waited two years for a more definitive answer as to how Sherlock survived the series 2 finale.
7 “The Abominable Bride” (Special)
The latest entry in the Sherlock saga is possibly the most divisive among fans. “The Abominable Bride” was advertised as an insight into how a Victorian-era Sherlock Holmes would go about cracking a case. It was billed as a fun, one-off episode that would pay homage to Conan Doyle and leave the modern day storyline for a future fourth series.
But then we open on present day Sherlock, on the same plane he boarded as punishment for the murder of Magnussen at the end of series 3. The Victorian setting is merely a look into Sherlock’s mind palace, as he attempts to decode Moriarty’s return. The flashbacks are indeed fun, but the interference of the present renders “the bride” (Natasha O’Keeffe) a mere plot device; a secondary character when compared to Moriarty and the very real present day threat.
It comes as a relief that Sherlock at least has the courtesy to solve the case, while fat Mycroft (Gatiss) and the reimagining of how Sherlock might have met John in the 19th Century make for some genuine laugh out loud moments. The idea that the modern day is simply Victorian Sherlock’s vision of the future is a nod to fans of Conan Doyle’s original works, and caps off a welcome (albeit controversial) return for the show.
The flashbacks' tenuous attempt at addressing feminist criticism levied at the show was met with a mixed reception, but the Emmys' stance was clear: the special snagged a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Television Movie.
6 “The Great Game” (1X03)
In the final episode of series 1, Moriarty (Andrew Scott) finally appears in the flesh, playing Riddler to England’s greatest detective (there’s a Batman reference in there somewhere). “The Great Game” marks the first time Sherlock has to work under time limits set by someone else-- saving hostages in bomb vests based on Moriarty’s challenges. It’s also the first time we see multiple cases in a single episode, and even if they do start to grow stale as we wait for Moriarty’s big reveal, Benedict Cumberbatch thrives as Sherlock is put under increasing pressure.
But this episode has moved up a couple of places in ranking based on its final scene alone. Moriarty eventually reveals himself at a swimming pool, of all places, and Scott steals the show with a performance that completely negates Cumberbatch’s stiff, calculated persona. Each actor allows the other to shine, as John appears as Moriarty’s latest hostage, putting Sherlock and Watson’s relationship to the test in a fitting end to the first series. Just as Sherlock’s affection for John is unveiled, guns are pointed at the pair from all sides, and the tension of the episode reaches a breaking point in the first of many Sherlock cliffhangers.
5 “A Scandal in Belgravia” (2X01)
And we’re into the top five episodes. Ranking these top five had to come down to the smallest of faults, and if we have to find one in “A Scandal in Belgravia,” it’s that the reveal of Irene Adler’s (Lara Pulver) passcode is a bit cringe-worthy. That a genius lesbian would be so gooey-eyed over Sherlock that she'd compromise her security by making her password a terrible pun based on his name is a little hard to buy. Otherwise, it features some of the funniest moments in the entire series, and while the ensemble cast each get their moments, we see a whole new side of Sherlock as the second series begins.
Sherlock had yet to drop any hints as to its main character’s sexuality, to the point that it was assumed he was far too distant from reality to partake in such human affection. Enter the Woman, with whom Sherlock becomes immediately obsessed after he is unable to “read” her, while she in turn longs to understand “what he likes.” Cumberbatch’s chemistry with Pulver sets the screen alight, and their connection develops over the course of the episode, actually turning into as close to a relationship as Sherlock could ever possibly come.
Elsewhere, John’s reactions to both naked Sherlock and naked Irene (a whole lot of naked this episode) are comedy gold, while Sherlock’s rescue of Mrs. Hudson (Una Stubbs) from the Americans is equally hilarious and heart-warming.
4 “His Last Vow” (3X03)
“His Last Vow” is the only finale episode not to feature Moriarty as its “big bad” (though his two brief appearances are some of the best moments in the episode), and it still manages to reach somewhere close to the bar set by “The Great Game” and “The Reichenbach Fall.”
Lars Mikkelsen replaces Andrew Scott's unhinged villainy with his icy utter control, matching Sherlock every step of the way and turning the famous detective into a murderer. The Magnussen storyline isn’t even the best in the episode though, as Mary reveals herself as a super spy in the strongest second act of a Sherlock episode to date.
She even goes so far as to shoot Sherlock, who spends his remaining three seconds of consciousness in his mind palace, as he figures out the best way to ensure his survival. Between this and Martin Freeman’s reaction to his wife’s true identity, “His Last Vow” gives us some of the single greatest moments in the show, and another Moriarty cliffhanger more than makes up for a slightly disjointed third act.
3 “The Reichenbach Fall” (2X03)
His brief showing in “The Great Game” aside, Moriarty was more a looming presence than a physical threat through the first series (and half of the second), but from the very beginning of the series 2 finale, “The Reichenbach Fall,” the supervillain is finally ready to put his plan into action. His plan, incidentally, is simply to challenge himself by taking on the great Sherlock Holmes.
And so begins possibly the wittiest battle of wits of all time, with Moriarty leaving clues in his wake as he robs the Tower of London and poses as an actor, and Sherlock stoically hanging in there. It’s “The Great Game” turned up to 11, as Moriarty replaces hostages with the people closest to Sherlock.
It becomes pretty clear that Moriarty is walking all over Sherlock even before the infamous rooftop scene, to the point that Sherlock’s loss feels inevitable. More poignant is Sherlock’s sacrifice for his loved ones; a culmination of two series’ worth of character development. Even more surprising is the length Moriarty is willing to go to cement his victory. Shooting himself in the head to secure Sherlock’s demise is exactly the right way for this version of Moriarty to go out.
But Sherlock has one miracle left in him-- saving himself and those closest to him, presumably relying on the one thing Moriarty can’t understand: the help of his friends. And while it never fails to make us cry, Sherlock actually getting the win after an entire episode of being pounded deeper into the dirt is one of the great underdog stories ever seen on television.
2 “A Study in Pink” (1X01)
The episode that started it all, “A Study in Pink” is the perfect example of a show beginning as it means to end. We see modern day London through John’s eyes, and the series opener wastes no time at all in establishing his motives as he pairs up with Sherlock. We’re investigating serial suicides almost immediately, as both the audience and John attempt to understand the man he is living and working with.
Everything you need to know about Sherlock Holmes is displayed over the next hour and a half. His ability to “read” a crime scene is a genius addition to this updated version, while Sherlock even says it himself: “I’m a not a psychopath; I’m a high-functioning sociopath.” It would be exposition in any other show, but Sherlock’s insatiable need to correct people is apparent right from the word "go."
Then the case springs into life, and the real Holmes comes out to play. He exposes the creepy cabbie (Phil Davis) quickly enough, but he puts his own life at risk for the chance to outwit him; a dying old man. The episode covers more or less every character and their relationships with one another, introducing visuals and running themes that have been replicated but never quite topped, even to this day.
1 “The Sign of Three” (3X02)
“The Sign of Three,” or rather, Sherlock’s 90-minute best man speech, makes for the most ambitious Sherlock episode yet. Feeling almost like a sitcom with crime drama undertones, it’s not an episode for everyone, but it’s a remarkable feat from the showrunners. As the only episode to have been written by all three of the show’s writers together, every single risk they take – from stag do flashbacks to the elephant in the room – works on its own, and for all its confusion and straight up comedy, the ending wraps everything together in a neat little bow.
Sherlock’s speech provides the episode its backbone, at the same time playing to Cumberbatch’s comedic timing and solidifying Sherlock and Watson’s relationship for good (despite the hint that their relationship will never be the same again now that John is married). “The Bloody Guardsman” case is genuinely one of the most interesting in the show’s run, while “The Mayfly Man” brings about some classing Sherlock moments, as Irene Adler impeaches another of Sherlock’s against-the-clock mind palace scenes.
The rest of the episode is brilliant fun. Drunk Sherlock attempting to read a scene reveals only the words, “Egg? Chair? Sitty thing???” and between his attempts to plan a stag night and his reaction to John asking him to be his best man, Cumberbatch is clearly enjoying himself immensely, and so are we.
We can only hope that the new series of Sherlock will bring with it more episodes as creative, clever, and emotionally rich as "The Sign of Three."
What is your favourite episode of Sherlock? Let us know in the comments!